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Clarence Darrow

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Clarence Darrow ca. 1922

Clarence Darrow (April 18, 1857March 13, 1938) was an American lawyer, best known for having defended Leopold and Loeb in their trial for murder and defending John T. Scopes in the so-called "Monkey Trial", opposing fundamentalist Christian prosecutor William Jennings Bryan. He remains famous for his wit, compassion, and agnosticism that have marked him as one of the most famous American lawyers and civil libertarians.

After beginning his career as a corporations lawyer in Illinois, he switched sides to represent the American Railway Union, led by Eugene V. Debs, in the Pullman Strike of 1894. Darrow had conscientiously resigned his lucrative corporate position to represent the working class because he empathized with their plight. He also defended radical labor leaders such as Big Bill Haywood.

Darrow successfully defended Haywood, the leader of the Industrial Workers of the World and the Western Federation of Miners, on charges of murdering the former governor of Idaho in 1905. He was not so successful when called on to defend the MacNamara Brothers, who were charged with dynamiting the Los Angeles Times building during the bitter struggle over the open shop in Southern California: Darrow convinced them to plead guilty and barely escaped conviction himself for an alleged attempt to bribe a juror.

Whether guilty or not, Darrow left labor practice to devote himself to opposing the death penalty, which he felt to be in conflict with humanitarian progress. In more than 100 cases, Darrow only lost one murder case in Chicago. He became renowned for moving juries and even judges to tears with his eloquence. Despite scant education, which included a year at the University of Michigan Law School, Darrow had a keen intellect often shielded by his rumpled, unassuming appearance. Contrary to popular belief, he did not oppose religious principle, but the intolerance and ignorance he claimed were preached by its more conservative practitioners, such as the fundamentalists.

A story attributed to Darrow is his quip to a client, who, after winning, said, "How can I ever show my appreciation, Mr. Darrow?" Darrow replied, "Ever since the Phoenicians invented money, there has been only one answer to that question." However, Darrow's pursuit of wealth has been overstated by his detractors. Darrow often took on pro bono defendants who had no means to pay for their attorney.

During the 1924 Leopold-Loeb trial, when Darrow had supposedly accepted "a million-dollar defense", ordinary Americans were angered at their apparent betrayal. In truth, Darrow and his two co-counsels were given $100,000 to split three ways—after dunning the wealthy Loeb family for several months.

In 1925, he defended Ossian Sweet, a black doctor from Detroit, in the shooting death of a member of a white mob. The mob of at least a 1,000 people had gathered outside Sweet's home to force him to move from the neighborhood. Darrow referred to the trial as one his best argued, finishing with a legendary eight-hour impassioned closing argument which won acquittal for Dr. Sweet from the eleven-man jury, shocking the city.

After the 1925 Scopes Trial, Clarence Darrow largely retired from practice, emerging only occasionally to undertake cases, such as the 1934 Massie Trial in Hawaii.

A volume of Darrow's boyhood Reminiscences, entitled "Farmington," was published in Chicago in 1903 by McClurg and Company.

Darrow shared offices with Edgar Lee Masters, who achieved more fame for his poetry, in particular the Spoon River Anthology, than for his advocacy. Darrow also took Eugene V. Debs as a partner, following his release from prison.


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